::Literate Blather::
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Literary Criticism: Frank Stockton's "The Lady, or the Tiger?"
Summary: A long time ago, a semi-barbaric king creates an unusual way to judge the guilt or innocence of his subjects. He assembles his citizens in an arena and then calls for the condemned to choose one of two doors. Behind one door is a vicious tiger and behind the second a beautiful maiden he will marry. Fate is the final arbitrator of guilt or innocence. The condemned either dies or weds. The king’s daughter then falls in love with a heroic commoner and they have a months-long affair. When the king finds out, he is outraged. He imprisons the suitor and calls for an assembly. Behind one door is the largest, most wild tiger in the kingdom. Behind the second is the princess’s gorgeous lady-in-waiting. The jealous princess discovers the secret of the test and her suitor looks to her for a clue. She points to the right door and the lad boldly opens it. Is there a tiger? Or the lady? Did the jealous princess pick life or death for her lover? The reader is left to fill in the blank.

Analysis: Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady, or the Tiger?” always conjures up the Grateful Dead song “Terrapin Station.”
In the song, a lady tosses her fan into a lion’s den. She bids a sailor and a soldier to fetch it; promising her eternal love to the one who succeeds. The soldier declines, but the sailor boldly retrieves the fan and the lady leaps into his arms. The song narrator asks the listeners to decide if the sailor made the wise choice.

“The story teller makes no choice. Soon you will not hear his voice.
His job is to shed light, and not to master.
Since the end is never told, we pay the teller off in gold,
In hopes he will return, but he cannot be bought or sold.”

Obviously, the song reflects the short story, which was written in 1882. But the song asks the reader to make the final moral judgment and that’s exactly what Stockton does in his classic tale of a conundrum.

There is one word of dialog in the story: “Which?”

This is the question asked by the suitor to the princess as he stands before the two doors in the arena. It is this question that forms the foundation of Stockton’s fable and ultimately the answer is what he demands of his readers.

On the surface, the story hinges on the princess and her horrible situation (a “Catch-22” before Joseph Heller was even born). She can tell her suitor to pick the door with the tiger and watch him get torn to shreds and devoured or she can picked the door with the lady and watch her true love be wed to one of the women of her court. In either case, she never gets to see him again.

Stockton makes sure to play the story straight down the middle (and he never hinted at the conclusion before he died in 1904). But the reader is told that the daughter is much like her father, the king. “This semi-barbaric king had a daughter as blooming as his most florid fancies, and with a soul as fervent and imperious as his own.”

The princess is acquainted with the lady behind the door – a beauty from her court. We know that the princess is a jealous woman and in the past has “seen, or imagined that she had seen, this fair creature throwing glances of admiration upon the person of her lover, and sometimes she thought these glances were perceived and even returned.” She also “hated the woman who blushed and trembled behind that silent door.”

Yet, she also loves her suitor and the thought of him being mauled by a starving tiger makes her mad with despair. “How often, in her waking hours and in her dreams, had she started in wild horror, and covered her face with her hands, as she thought of her lover opening the door on the other side of which waited the cruel fangs of the tiger!”

Her suitor knows instantly that the princess has discovered the secret of this particular test and that’s when he mutters:


“Her right arm lay on the cushioned parapet before her. She raised her hand, and made a slight, quick movement toward the right. No one but her lover saw her. Every eye but his was fixed on the man in the arena. He turned, and, with a firm and rapid step he walked across the empty space. Every heart stopped beating, every breath was held, every eye was fixed immovably upon that man. Without the slightest hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.”

But the reader never learns the answer. Instead, Stockton turns outward and addresses the reader. He wants us to make the decision. The decision then is about us; about whom we are behind the façade of our public selves – because every reader of “The lady, or the Tiger?” instantly gets a visual of their own personalized ending. You either see the tiger leap forth or the shy lady standing there (perhaps hiding her blush behind a fan).

Are we cynic or optimist? Are we glass half full or glass half empty? Are we romantics or melancholy pessimists? Do we believe human beings are inherently good or evil?

This is why the short story has become a staple in high school literature classes. The answer is at once intimate and a telling gauge of our own public perspective. It can open up lively classroom discussions and reveal the power of the written word. But the real magic of Stockton’s story is its ability to tell us something about ourselves.

And that’s why I see the trusting lad opening the door and…

Well, let me turn to the Grateful Dead for my answer: “A door within the fire creaks; suddenly flies open, and a girl is standing there.”

Read our literary criticism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One of These Days"

Read our literary criticism of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde"

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